Conversations with Fernando Zóbel | Rafael Pérez-Madero

Fernando Zóbel interviewed by Rafael Pérez-Madero

RPM [Rafael Pérez-Madero]: In going over the critical literature of those days
I notice that you are often classified among the
informalistas (a rough equivalent of which, in English, might be “action painters.”) I suppose
this may be the result of your calligraphic approach, or perhaps you got lumped together with your contemporaries in Spain because you all shared a fascination with black and white. In any event, I think the classification is wrong. You were not an
informalista. Your painting was and is intellectual rather than instinctive.

FZ [Fernando Zóbel]: I suppose that the distinction between action painting and the kind of painting that attempts to analyze movement is a subtle one, but it does exist. And I think that it is an important distinction.
Essentially, “informalism,” action painting, gesture painting or what you will, has to do with improvisation. It is emotive, direct and expressionistic. I admire it profoundly when exercised by masters like Kline, De Kooning and Saura. My own sort of thing is pretty far removed from visceral expression. The fact is that I really don’t improvise very well. I can’t seem to express myself without first taking thought.

RPM: Yet your paintings always manage to look fresh and spontaneous…

FZ: At least that’s the way I’d like them to look. But getting there involves planning and effort.

When a picture looks fresh people tend to think it was improvised. I’m pretty sure that exactly the opposite took place.

RPM: We have touched briefly on space and scale. Actually, your paintings are not very large most of the time. I mean in actual size. Yet, from time to time, you do paint a large picture, and when you do, it seems to me, you do so as a kind of résumé of a theme explored by means of a long series of sketches, studies, smaller paintings, and such. An example of this might be the Ornitóptero[…].

FZ: In fact, I have done relatively few really big paintings; probably less than twenty. And you are quite right: most of them seem to mark the end of something as well as functioning as its résumé. The Ornitóptero does this for the whole investigation of motion included in the Black Paintings. At the same time it marks the beginning of a new concern with space and, above all, with color.


FZ: The real theme of the Ornitóptero, as we said before, is movement. A very specific kind of movement that includes its own contradiction. Historically, the ornithopters were a class of early flying machines meant to fly by flapping their wings. Obviously, they never left the ground. The subject of the picture is their intent and its frustration. The technique is black line on

a white background. The background remains inert. Its purpose is to set limits, suggest scale, and offer a field of action. The blacks, on the other hand, carry the message. By using the classical vocabulary of drawing, they suggest speed and, at the same time, deny it. Additionally, the range of blacks employed suggest color. And, in fact, in the paintings that follow the Ornitóptero, color comes frankly into play.

InLa Vista XXVI […], which comes years later, I return to monochrome. In a sense, color has been abandoned. Actually, though, what has really disappeared is the background. The idea of a painting as black form against white background. Form and background are now fused. Everything has become background, or, if you prefer, everything has turned into form.

Movement as a theme has also gone. The subject of La Vista can be several things: a certain quality of light, a certain scale, a remembered moment in time. Where the Ornitópteroexplains,La Vista suggests. Those light grey masses vibrate and suggest color; in fact, they ARE color though it

is the kind of color that stays within the boundaries of what we call grey. Cold greys and warm greys, always very light in key, and usually contrasted against a very few small black accents. The final effect I want to achieve is that of a light clear space suggestive of a lyrical, somewhat unreal, metaphorical mood. A space that attempts to organize the memories of the spectator. With nothing but white and grey? Why not? As Jocelyne François put it in one of her poems: “même le blanc est véhément…”

RPM: Despite their air of simplicity, these white paintings seem richer and more complex than what came before. You have enlarged your field. Your black paintings were almost totally concerned with motion. Now you are dealing with space, volume, composition, while your images suggest landscapes, still lifes, the human body…

FZ: Though essentially the themes have to do with light, with the large and the small, the far and the near, and, above all, with memory.

RPM: Your memory or the spectator’s?

FZ: Both. The spectator, so often neglected, is an essential component in my paintings.

RPM: I think I know what you mean. In La Vista, which is clearly a landscape, subjects are vague, light is suggested but not defined, time is indeterminate. Everything is ambiguous. Is the spectator supposed to fill in the blanks?

FZ: On the whole, yes. La Vista is based on the view through my window. When I look at it I see all sorts of things that don’t really interest me very much: houses, roads, colors, birds, etc. You might call them the anecdotes of the view. […]

RPM: We have touched on a few of the themes included in the White Series, those I thought helped best to explain your method of work. There are many other themes, however, which break down into smaller groups, like the Almendros(Almond Trees, […]), Invierno en Sevilla (Winter in Seville, […]), El Jardín del Obispo (The Bishop’s Garden, […]). La Plaza de Pilatos […], and so on…

FZ: The White Series is turning into a long one, and its themes multiply. There is a whole group of marine landscapes where the theme is the reflection of light on water […] and the same is generally true of La Piedra del caballo (The Stone of the Horse, a place-name on the Cuenca river bank, […]). The almond trees in bloom deal with the way we see when we look out of the window of a swiftly moving car. There are two ways of seeing peculiar to our age: the chopped-up way imposed by television, and the blurred sort of thing offered by rapid transportation. Both fascinate me. Their fragmentary nature eliminates the inessential from our memory. Very selective. I’d like to talk at length about this some other time. For the present, all the themes discussed have two features in common: they are painted in monochrome and their scale is kept ambiguous.

RPM: Your rather special way of seeing, studying, and using what you see is becoming increasingly familiar as we go along. Certain constants emerge very clearly. I find it surprising, for instance, that despite your changes of subject and technique, your paintings always end up by being quiet and harmonious. There is a sense of order everywhere.

FZ: They are pretty quiet. And order is essential. In the widest sense of the word, order is one of the secrets of what I recognize as beauty. Years ago someone told me that in Japanese the same word can mean “clean” and “beautiful.” I have given that a lot of thought.

Order, and a certain simplicity of composition, probably accounts for a good deal of the tranquility you seem to find in my pictures. Incidentally,

that may explain why I can’t seem to work directly from a model. There
is too much going on. I prefer to trust the abbreviated sense of order imposed by memory. Memory selects and organizes. It seems to whisper: “THIS is worthwhile,” and I try to listen. It isn’t all as easy as it sounds. But when I recognize the results in my work I feel very pleased.
Not very long ago it was part of the “Spanishness” of Spanish artists to paint in terms of drama, tragedy, fury, force, despair and such. Critics have asked me what I did with the anguish in my life. My answer is that I leave
it home where it belongs since it has nothing to do with my painting. I have nothing against violence expressed in paint, especially when it is well expressed, but it isn’t the sort of thing I want to do. I’d much rather point and say, “have you noticed…?” My posture is essentially a lyrical one.

RPM: We began by speaking of your Saetas and how an exhibition by Rothko more or less forced you into abstraction. Later, after the Black Seriesyou reintroduce a certain amount of figuration and your work progressively and increasingly gets involved with a kind of reality both experienced and observed…

FZ: I haven’t consciously tried to paint an abstract painting since the Saetas, or a figurative one, for that matter. I simply try to paint pictures. The whole abstract versus figurative thing bores me; I find it beside the point. If the spectator recognizes something in one of my paintings, I suppose that makes it figurative; if not, it’s abstract. I couldn’t care less. What I DO care about is communicating what Cézanne called his “petite sensation.” I would like mine to find an echo. That’s what it’s all about.



PÉREZ-MADERO, Rafael; ZÓBEL DE AYALA, Fernando. Zóbel: La Serie Blanca. Madrid: Ediciones Rayuela, 1978, pp. 16-81 [excerpts].

Published in Zóbel-Chillida. Criscrossing paths Barcelona, 2019. Mayoral p.37-40